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Local gal Kate Schermerhorn, who made the wonderful documentary After Happily Ever After, has an interesting column in HuffPost weddings section this week — “What is love? Help wanted.”

Of the 10 items she lists as what love is and isn’t, she says if she had to put a one-word soundbite on it, it would be love as a motivator:

Love motivates you to do right by your mate, to try harder, to keep going. It motivates you to offer your best to the one you love, even if at times you fail. And this one useful word also leaves plenty of room for the reality that — a.) there are times when we’ve lost our motivation altogether and when we do, we know it’s probably time to walk away, and b.) some people are more motivated than others … in life and in love.

While most of us can probably agree that love often incorporates much of what she says, defining love remains as elusive as ever although we all have a sense of it and believe we have experienced it or are experiencing it still.  What is love?

I am reminded of a column I wrote for the HuffPost last year, right before the forced love-fest known as Valentine’s Day. Since December is the month that most men pop the question, “Will you marry me?” I thought it was a good time to revisit it.

Love is why we marry, or at least that’s what many of us believe. Of course, something as fragile as love alone isn’t a good enough reason to create a life together, as noted marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has written volumes about.

Still, we want to believe that love is essential in marriage. That’s fine except, what is love? Many of us are stumped to define it, and even those of us who can define it often find that others may not agree with our definition. Yet we, like Chief Justice Potter Stewart once said about porn, “know it when we see it.”

A friend, a college professor who teaches a class in love, says her students are terrified of having to define love, terrified by the idea that love should even be defined. Hate, narcissism — they have no problem agreeing on definitions for those. But love? They shrug, a defeatist shrug, and say, “Well, it’s different for everyone.”

Is it? If love is different for everyone, then what love are we talking about when we’re building a marriage around it or divorcing because we no longer have it? What love are we talking about when we insist people marry “for love”?

Do we even know how to love?

Some would argue we don’t.

In the late M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book, The Road Less Traveled, he notes that most of us “confuse cathecting with love,” cathecting being the emotions and feelings we have toward someone we’re drawn to. But we can be drawn to people who give us affection and care, yet who also abuse us — physically, mentally, sexually. Abuse has no place in love.

Care and affection are not love, or so argues author and cultural critic bell hooks in her book All About Love: New Visions:

Many of us chose relationships of affection and care that will never become loving because they feel safer. The demands are not as intense as loving requires. The risk is not as great. So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks. Even though we are obsessed with the idea of love, the truth is that most of us live relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives even if we feel that love is lacking … Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks — with terrible alienation. The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is.

She doesn’t sound much different than my middle-aged friends who have “relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives” while staying in loveless and sexless marriages. She also doesn’t sound much different than my friend’s students: “Well, it’s different for everyone.”

But this — “many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks” — is the killer. What if we don’t ever have the love that’s deemed the “real” love?

“I am afraid that we may be raising a generation of young people who will grow up afraid to love, afraid to give themselves completely to another person, because they will have seen how much it hurts to take the risk of loving and have it not work out,” writes rabbi and author Harold S. Kushner in When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. “I’m afraid they will grow up looking for intimacy without risk, for pleasure without significant emotional investment.”

That may already be the case. Certainly that thinking has given rise to hookups, friends with benefits and no-strings-attached sex. It may be what’s behind the rise in single mothers by choice and the reluctance of many young men to marry. Perhaps it’s why there are more than 32 million people living alone — a statistic some are celebrating, such as Eric Klinenburg, author of the book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. And it may also be why there are 12 times as many people cohabiting now than in the 1970s.

So, how do we define love as we walk down the aisle? What love do we lack when we sign the divorce papers? For Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” — “spiritual” meaning not religion but the core of us that, when nurtured, allows us to be self-actualized.

Rather than a feeling, he says, love is an intention and an action. When we are loving, hooks says, we are openly and honestly expressing care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.

I can live with that definition.

“Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that it means we will not be challenged or changed,” hooks adds.

I can live with challenge and change, too. Can you?

  • How do you define love?
  • Have you ever changed your idea about what love is? Why?
  • Have you ever thought you had love but later realized you didn’t, or vice-versa?


Photo © yosunne/Fotolia.com

2 Responses to “Do we really know what love is?”

  1. ToppHogg says:

    As an old BB King song goes, “Nobody loves me but my mother – and she could be jivin’ me too!”

    Motherly love is the only real love in the universe, and all that a child needs to do to win that love is to respond to mother’s attentions with smiles. this bond weakens as the child needs mother less. Eventually, the child is grown, and that motherly love either converted into some adult form of emotional connection, or it ends.

    That which we want to call love between adults is anything but. It is the biochemical means by which procreation is facilitated, and tends to evaporate once the process is successful.

    For these reasons, anyone who claims love is anything else is only showing their personal biases. People can still like each other a lot, even be hot sex partners, but love isn’t a necessary component of that combination. Instead, trust and security are.

    Thus the discomfort when asked to define love. Few of us have felt it while sentient.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      I agree with BB (love that quote, by the way!) — not every mom loves her kids. Just ask any shrink!!

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